When technology works well, we don’t think about it. We take it for granted. But some recent “technology failures” have led me to reflect on its role in my life, and how it impacts on how I see other human beings and the world.
- So much more than a watch
My Apple Watch stopped working.
Before buying the Apple Watch, I hadn’t used a wrist watch for many, many, many years. I didn’t feel the need for one, as there are so many devices around me that show me the time. My mobile phone. My laptop. My car. The oven. The bus stop. And many, many others.
I got an Apple Watch not because of its ability to tell me the time, but because I wanted to track my physical activity. When the watch stopped working, I initially thought that I was missing the ability to check how much I had moved. But, then, I realised that what I was missing, really, was the reassurance of checking that I had moved as much as I wanted to.
I also realised that I was missing:
- The prompts to stand up
- The prodding to move just a little bit more, so that I can close my circles for the day
- The ability to check my e-mails discreetly during a meeting
- The notification that someone was calling me (my phone is usually on silent)
- The ability to control my podcast app without having to reach for my phone
- The ability to check the weather app without having to reach for my phone
- The calendar alerts, jolting me to go to the next meeting or move on to the next task
- And… checking the time.
It’s funny how this piece of technology has gradually acquired a bigger and bigger role in my life, going well beyond my initial expectations. So much so that what I initially thought was an eccentric piece of technology, now feels like a very functional one.
- The machine knows better
Recently, I was in a situation where I had to take a Uber to an ice-rink in a suburb, 3 days in a row. I am guessing that it’s not a common destination because, every time, on the way there, the drivers seemed to be intrigued by the route indicated by the app. The first driver took a wrong turn. The second kept zooming in and zooming out the map in the app, to check the location and the route. And the third one even tried a different route, though he eventually decided to turn back and follow the route outlined by the app.
I found myself feeling really exasperated with the drivers. Didn’t they know that the machine knows better? Why can’t they just follow the navigation system’s directions?
I didn’t like having this thought. I didn’t like not trusting my fellow human beings. I didn’t like thinking that a human being should obey a machine, blindly.
I have been listening to some old episodes of the Intelligence Squared podcast. Each episode is usually preceded and followed by an advert, to which I pay little attention. Though, I was puzzled when some of these episodes had adverts in German (the episodes are recorded in England).
After some thinking, I remembered that I had downloaded some podcast episodes while I was travelling in Germany. So, the adverts for this podcast must have been ‘added’ after the podcast was produced, and personalised based on the location of the listener (or, rather, the location of the listener when the episode was downloaded).
The different, unexpected language caught my attention, and made me think about the targeted adverts.
First, it made me wonder how many times I have received targeted adverts, but didn’t notice it because there wasn’t an obvious profiling criterion. Unless we understand that we are being targeted, we can’t question the biases in the adverts, and fight against the ‘bubble’.
Second, the obvious profiling made me feel uneasy. It made it very obvious that my location was being tracked by some entity, and that decisions were being made on my behalf, based on that information. And this uneasy feeling transferred to the podcast itself, reducing my goodwill / pleasure in listening to those episodes.
Third, while I was in Germany when I downloaded the podcast episodes in question, I wasn’t there when I listened to them. In fact, my limited knowledge of the language means that I don’t even understand what the advert is about (other than that it is for a hotel). Since then I have been thinking about how location is relevant for different types of adverts, and the interplay between location and language, in geo-targeting.
What interesting interactions with technology have made you stop and think, lately?
3 thoughts on “[Miscellany] Some reflections from my use of technology”
A story of missing links, rather than failing tech per se: Recently I was reading about air pollution apps and how popular they are in China. It aligns with my own interests, so I tried to find an app that would give me air quality readings in my area, but to no avail. The apps exist, but the data for the (small) UK city where I live is not available. It made me wonder if this data exists at all. I think I might see if there are some citizen-scientist options out there.
The punchline here is that while there are indeed ‘apps for that’, the data which powers them is certainly not ubiquitous. As Gibson said, The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.
Ah, love that example: illustrates the role of data in all these apps / tech and, as you say, the unevenness of the tech revolution.
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